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Court stakeholders brainstorm on how to safely resume trials, grand juries

Hall County Court Administrator Jason Stephenson says attorneys and judges are waiting for the green light from the Supreme Court of Georgia on resuming jury trials and grand jury proceedings. 

But until they can put their foot on the pedal, they are trying to brainstorm on how to do so safely. 

“The big goal is to figure out how to bring in jurors and socially distance them and then to conduct a trial where not everybody can wear a mask,” Stephenson said. “Because defendants, jurors and witnesses, you need to be able to see their faces. You need to be able to gauge credibility.” 

A defendant’s constitutional right to confront one’s accuser “contemplates in-person testimony that the defendant can see and hear,” Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard said. 

“It’s not just the words you say and the tone of your voice, but it’s often the facial expression — smiling, grimacing, not smiling — that tell a lot about how seriously somebody is taking a matter or how respectful or disrespectful they are being,” she said. 

Chief Judge Kathlene Gosselin issued an emergency judicial order in July that has delayed grand juries and jury trials until at least Oct. 1. 

The Times was invited to attend a Zoom call Friday, Sept. 4, in which members of a “COVID-19 jury committee” brainstormed. 

The committee is made up of Gosselin, State Court Judge B.E. Roberts, prosecutors, clerks, law enforcement, court administrators and Dr. Pamela Logan from the Department of Public Health. 

Court officials are anticipating being able to start grand juries before jury trials. 

When allowed to do so, Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said his office will try to hold grand jury proceedings often enough to catch up with the backlog. 

“However, it’s obvious that everyone involved in the court system wants to do that as safely as possible for potential grand jurors, for witnesses and others,” Darragh said. “Therefore, it will be a much slower process than might have been possible.” 

There is also the issue of space, because Darragh said he doesn’t believe they can be socially distant in the current grand jury room.  

The Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center was previously designated as an alternative courtroom, but that order has since expired, Stephenson said. 

Stephenson said every option — county, municipal and private spaces — is being considered, as they are trying to find a space big enough to keep people separated. 

Ideally, they would need a space where 50 to 100 people could spread out.